Protected aquatic animals

All native mammals, birds and reptiles are protected in NSW. Vessel operators must keep an active lookout to avoid harming these animals.

Protected aquatic animals include whales, seals, dolphins, penguins and turtles, as well as a variety of water birds.

Boat-based whale watching has become a popular activity. To safeguard whales and minimise danger to vessels, there are certain rules governing vessel speeds and approach distances around whales (see diagram).

All vessels (powered and un-powered) must stay at least 100 metres from a whale (300 metres if whale is with calf) and maintain a slow ‘no wash’ speed while within 300 metres. The corresponding distances for dolphins are 50 metres (adults only) and 150 metres (if calves are present). Different rules apply to PWC, they must not approach within 300 metres of any whales or dolphins.

Little penguins are another endangered species and parts of Sydney Harbour have been declared ‘critical habitat’ to better protect them. Special rules apply in this area during the penguins’ breeding season from 1 July to 28 February. This includes restrictions on anchoring, fishing and vessel access in the Spring Cove area.

For further details about the protection of whales, penguins, seals and other aquatic animals, visit the Environmental and Heritage website.

Whale and dolphin watching

Whale approach distances

  • 300m to either side if calf is present
  • 100m to either side if only adult
  • No waiting ahead of the whale(s)
  • No approaching from behind the whale(s)

Dolphin approach distances

  • 150m to either side if calf is present
  • 50m to either side if only adult
  • No waiting ahead of the dolphin(s)
  • No approaching from behind the dolphin(s)

Advice to skippers

  • Go slow when within 300 metres of whales and 150 metres of dolphins
  • No more than three vessels at a time should approach whales or dolphins. Wait for your turn and don’t barge in
  • Start your approach at an angle of at least 30 degrees to their direction of travel
  • If a whale approaches your vessel:
    • Slow down to ‘no wash’ speed
    • Move away or disengage your vessel’s gears
    • Make no sudden movement
    • Minimise noise.
    Diagram of whale and dolphin approach distances as explained in the text
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